Skunk Research Review

The following is an article from The Annals of Improbable Research, now in all-pdf form. Get a subscription now for only $25 a year!

Salient points from research on or about skunks
by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research
The History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research,” William F. Wood, The Chemical Educator, vol. 4, 1999, pp. 44–50. The author, at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, explains:

The striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) is widely known for the highly odoriferous defensive secretion it uses to repel predators. Chemists have sporadically investigated the chemical composition of this secretion for many years. In this research, a number of chemicals have been incorrectly attributed to this secretion and the errors incorporated into the chemical literature. The major component in skunk spray was erroneously believed to be 1-butanethiol, until it was later shown that the actual compound was (E)-2-butene-1-thiol. More recently, two studies identified the third major compound in the secretion as either (E)-2-butenyl methyl disulfide or (E)- 2-butenyl propyl sulfide. These structural assignments were incorrect and the compound was later shown to be (E)-2-butenyl thioacetate.

Folklore asserts that tomato juice will neutralize the odor of skunk spray, but human olfactory fatigue can explain the apparent disappearance of the odor on sprayed pets. The odoriferous thiols in skunk spray can easily be neutralized by oxidation to sulfonic acids.

Details from Wood’s study “The History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research.”

Skunk Spray Maliciously Deployed
“GC/MS Based Identification of Skunk Spray Maliciously Deployed as ‘Biological Weapon’ to Harm Civilians,” Robert Wennig, Serge Schneider, and François Meys, Journal of Chromatography B, vol. 878, nos. 17–18, May 15, 2010, pp. 1433–16. The authors, at the Université du Luxembourg, report:

Our laboratory has been asked to elucidate the origin of a strong “toxic smell” present in a prominent politician’s office, private house and motorcar. This stinky and pungent atmosphere has caused serious nausea and vomiting to several individuals....

A literature review and manual MS spectra interpretation allowed us to identify compounds identical to those produced by skunks for their defence....

The present study shows that compounds produced by skunks may be used in “chemical/biological threats” to generate psychological stress because of their repugnant smell. However, these compounds are otherwise relatively harmless when present at low concentrations. In our case the repugnant smell lasted for several days. During this period nobody could enter the office or home of the politician. No health sequels were observed for any of the persons implicated in this incident. As far as we know the offender(s) of this incident has (have) never been identified.

The Scent of the Striped Skunk
“Some Chemical Constituents of the Scent of the Striped Skunk (Mephitis mephitis),” Kenneth K. Andersen and David T. Bernstein, Journal of Chemical Ecology, vol. 1, no. 4, 1975, pp. 493–9, DOI 10.1007/BF00988589. The authors explain that:

The malodorous, volatile portion of the scent or musk of the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) contains trans-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, and trans-2-butenyl methyl disulfide but no 1-butanethiol.

The Spray of the Spotted Skunk
Volatile Components in Defensive Spray of the Spotted Skunk, Spilogale putorius,” William F. Wood, Christopher G. Morgan, and Alison Miller, Journal of Chemical Ecology, vol. 17, no. 7, 1991, pp. 1415–20. The authors report:

GC-MS analysis of the anal sac secretion from the spotted skunk, Spilogale putorius, showed three major volatile components: (E)-2-butene- l-thiot, 3-methyll-butanethiol, and 2-phenylethanethiol. Minor volatile components identified from this secretion were: phenylmethanethiol, 2-meth- ylquinoline, 2-quinolinemethanethiol, bis[(E)-2-butenyl] disulfide, (E)-2- butenyl 3-methylbutyl disulfide, bis(3-methylbutyl) disulfide.

The Spray of the Hog-nosed Skunk
“Volatile Components in Defensive Spray of the Hognosed Skunk, Conepatus mesoleucus,” William F. Wood, Christoph O. Fisher, and Gary A. Graham, Journal of Chemical Ecology, vol. 19, no. 4, 1993, pp. 837–41. The authors report:

GC-MS analysis of the anal sac secretion from the hog-nosed skunk, Conepatus mesoleucus, showed two major volatile components, (E)-2-butene-1- thiol and (E)-S-2-butenyl thioacetate.

The Spray of the Hooded Skunk
“Volatile Components in Defensive Spray of the Hooded Skunk, Mephitis macroura,” William F. Wood, Brian G. Sollers, Gwen A. Dragoo, and Jerry W. Dragoo, Journal of Chemical Ecology, vol. 28, no. 9, September 2002, pp. 1865–70. The authors report:

GC-MS analysis of the anal sac secretion from the hooded skunk, Mephitis macroura, showed the following seven major components comprised 99% of the volatiles in this secretion: (E)-2-butene-1-thiol, 3-methyl-1-butanethiol, S-(E)-2-butenyl thioacetate, S-3-methylbutenyl thioacetate, 2-phenylethanethiol, 2-methylquinoline, and 2-quinolinemethanethiol.

No Spray Live Skunk Trap Apparatus
“No Spray Live Skunk Trap Apparatus,” U.S. Patent 4,821,450, granted to W.D. Kenison of Pioche, Nevada, April 18, 1989. The inventor explains the superiority of his design over earlier kinds of skunk trap devices:

In those instances wherein an open wire framework comprises the trap housing, it does not require a vivid imagination to foresee the problems of even approaching the trapped skunk no less actually transporting the polecat from the location where the animal was actually captured.

As a consequence of the foregoing situation there has existed a longstanding need among individuals who are interested in trapping skunks at one location and releasing the animals unharmed at another location, for a live trap construction that will minimize to the greatest extent feasible the possibility of the trapper receiving an unwanted dosage of skunk essence. The provision of such a no spray live skunk trapping apparatus being the stated purpose and objective of the present invention.

W.D. Kenison’s 1989 design for a “no spray live skunk trap apparatus.”

BONUS: Skunk Silkworm Faeces Smell Factor
“On a Smell Factor Existing in Faeces From the Skunk Silkworm, Bombyx mori” [article in Japanese], Narumi Yoshitake, Masahiko Kobayashi, and Yoko Ogawa, Journal of Sericultural Science of Japan, vol. 47, no. 2, 1978, pp. 161–5


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2010 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research.

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I'm afraid what they mean is that the process of oxidation causes the thiols to turn into sulfonic acids, which have a more benign odor. The implied way to get from here to there is "airing out over time."
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"The odoriferous thiols in skunk spray can easily be neutralized by oxidation to sulfonic acids."
So what is the most available form of sulfonic acids to use to remove skunk odor?
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